The One-Star General, the Latina Prosecutor, and the Race That Could Define U.S. Politics
What happens in battleground Nevada on Nov. 8 could forecast America's political future.
LAS VEGAS — Uniforms untucked as they crammed around a foosball table, seven employees of the MGM Grand barely looked up as Democratic vice presidential contender Sen. Tim Kaine worked the cafeteria, taking selfies with hotel staffers and speaking Virginia-accented Spanish. But the young men were not too focused on the foosball to share their thoughts on the 2016 presidential election, and how Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s matchup will play out for Nevada’s hotly contested Senate race.
The seven MGM workers — Mexican-American, Filipino, and Turkish — represent a slice of Nevada’s diversity, and 2016’s near-historic divisiveness. Three said they’d vote for Clinton, and two for Trump; the other two were still trying to decide.
Waleed Haide, who is Turkish and has relatives in Iraq, said Clinton is “less worse than Trump.” Haide blamed the Republican nominee’s rhetoric against refugees from the Middle East — which prompted other GOP presidential candidates and lawmakers to follow suit — for freezing his family’s applications to join him in the U.S.
“When Trump says he wants to ban Mexicans, and stop immigration for any Muslim,” Haide said, “one of them is my family.”
Adrian Torres said Trump’s much-touted wall on the United States-Mexico border would create a workforce shortage for America; he walked across that border with his mother when he was 3 years old.
But Daniel, who identified himself as Filipino and a Trump supporter, asked if the Republican would plant mines around a border wall. It wasn’t clear if he was kidding.
And of the Senate race between Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, and Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada’s former state attorney general? “That’s a tough one,” Torres said.
Ultimately, he bet Masto would win, buoyed by voters who are turned off by Trump’s divisive rhetoric. Trump is “going to be good for” Masto, Torres said, whereas Heck “changes his views every few years.”
Even as the presidential campaign has polarized battleground Nevada, the state’s 2016 race for the U.S. Senate may hold far more importance for the nation. Heck, the highest ranking soldier in Congress, is battling Masto, who would become the first Latina senator in U.S. history, for the seat being vacated by retiring Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.
Since September, Trump has continued to slide in Nevada, with Clinton, the Democratic former secretary of state, now leading by 3.9 points, according to a Real Clear Politics polling average. And Trump may be pulling down the general along with him: As recently as Oct. 15, Heck and Masto were tied in the race for the Senate seat. Now, with just two weeks before the election, Masto leads by 2 percent.
Republicans came into 2016 at a disadvantage for keeping control of the Senate, where they currently hold a slim four-seat majority. The GOP is defending 24 seats this election cycle, compared to the Democrats’ 10. Since Nevada was widely considered the Republicans’ best chance to flip a currently-Democratic held seat, whether the GOP holds onto its majority could very well come down to Heck.
The race also forecasts the future of American politics. It is an election that — more starkly than anywhere else — pits veterans and older white communities that are anxious about security against mobilized minority voters who, after decades of demographic trends reflected nationwide, have emerged as a decisive voting bloc.
Reid and conservative megadonors are fighting a proxy war over Nevada’s Senate seat, and Clinton is dispatching her most powerful surrogates to the state to stump for Masto.
Heck, meanwhile, is grappling with uniting Republicans behind him while heeding his own reservations about Trump. On Oct. 8, the day after the Washington Post released a recording of Trump bragging about sexual assault, Heck unendorsed the GOP presidential nominee and called for him to step aside — drawing rebuke from his own supporters.
“I had to do what was right, not what was going to affect the race,” Heck told Foreign Policy at the Oct. 8 rally in Summerlin, an affluent Las Vegas suburb, where he was heckled for backing away from Trump.
“My wife, my daughters, my mother, my sister, and all women deserve better,” he said in his announcement. “America deserves better.”
Heck’s about-face came after months of defending Trump’s ability to responsibly handle U.S. nuclear codes while brandishing his own national security experience. But even before the bawdry tape’s release, Heck had begun to reframe his candidacy as crucial for the GOP holding the Senate — and the final line of defense against a likely commander in chief Clinton.
It’s a strategy other vulnerable Republican Senate candidates — and their backers — are adopting nationwide as well.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Senate Leadership Fund are now running ads pitching Republican senators as a necessary check against the Democratic nominee with overwhelming odds of becoming president — 93 percent, according to the New York Times. Further down the ballot, the House Republican PAC is going after Democratic candidates as “rubber stamps” for Clinton.
“Look, regardless of who the next occupant of the White House is,” Heck told FP at his campaign headquarters on Oct. 7, “it’s important to have a Republican Senate to stand as a check against bad ideas.”
But Masto and the Democrats — including President Barack Obama, who’s throwing himself into stumping for down-ballot candidates — are trying to keep Trump’s missteps front and center. Their strategy: Remind voters that Heck for months defended Trump despite his controversial statements on foreign policy and insults to minority voters and immigrants.
Trump has threatened to abandon NATO, encouraged countries to develop nuclear weapons, and denied mounting evidence that Moscow is directing hacking of U.S. political and other institutions. He kicked off his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, and has suggested mass deportations and advocated, on and off again, for a ban on Muslims.
Masto accused Heck of disavowing Trump only after the tape surfaced — and not criticizing the presidential nominee’s overall campaign, which she said was “based on racism, bigotry, and misogyny.”
“This is clearly a politician trying to save his career,” Masto said of Heck in an Oct. 8 interview with FP. Heck “is on record saying he thinks Donald Trump is the best person for national security and turning this economy around,” she said. “He has not stood up for anybody here.”
At a Las Vegas rally last Sunday, Obama focused almost entirely on the Senate race.
“What the heck? Heck, no!” Obama said, as the audience picked up the chant against the Republican general. “Now that Trump’s poll numbers are cratering, suddenly he says, ‘Well, no, I’m not supporting him.’ Too late — you don’t get credit for that,” Obama said.
As recently as Oct. 7, Heck was still defending — or at least trying to deflect — Trump’s controversial statements on foreign policy.
Trump “has said things that people may try and interpret as being dangerous or troublesome to our national security,” Heck told FP. But, he added, “I’m going to judge somebody based on their actions. And in my mind, Hillary Clinton is a greater threat to our foreign policy.”
Heck’s campaign said Tuesday that the congressman’s comments on Trump and Clinton’s foreign policy are still valid, and he is no longer supporting Trump as the nominee, but rather, for the personal reasons he outlined in his announcement.
The Senate-confirmed U.S. Army Reserve brigadier general spent last week in his new billet: at the Pentagon, where he’s the director of Reserve readiness, according to his office. The military physician has been called to active duty three times in the last 20 years, including a 2008 deployment to Iraq that he highlighted in a video announcing his Senate run. First elected to Congress in 2010, Heck leapfrogged to plum posts on the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees during his three terms.
Masto touts her own security credentials from a different angle. As Nevada’s attorney general, she said she helped defend the Las Vegas strip, which federal authorities describe as a terrorist target, and worked with Mexican counterparts on transnational crime. She also traveled to Geneva to talk about her work on human trafficking with a United Nations subcommittee.
In the candidates’ one and only debate, on Oct. 14, Masto pulled from Obama’s playbook — a tactic also relied on heavily by other Democratic Senate hopefuls nationwide in recent days. When Heck asked Masto what the United States should do about territorial disputes in the South China Sea, she pivoted to attacking Trump as unfit to be commander in chief.
But there is far more at play in the Senate race than the candidates alone. When asked why Nevada’s election is so close, Heck put it simply: “changing demographics.”
Even nationally, Republicans are increasingly relying on older white voters, and white voters without a college degree. Democrats, meanwhile, have seen surging support among minorities, millennials, and college-educated white voters.
A Cook Political Report analysis found around 47 million white voters without a college degree were eligible to cast a ballot in 2012, but didn’t. It’s part of why Trump keyed in on Nevada, one state where white voters who didn’t go to college outnumber those who did by as much as 18 percent.
But among the 15 states where the close results ultimately decided the 2012 presidential election, Nevada also has the highest proportion of Hispanic and Asian voters — who overwhelmingly vote Democratic — relative to those white voters without a college degree, who form Trump’s base. Roughly 30 percent of Nevada is Hispanic or Latino, representing one in five voters. About 9 percent is black, and 8.5 percent is Asian.
There are now roughly 77,000 ore registered Democrats than Republicans statewide, according to data from the Nevada secretary of state. And Democrats have so far dominated early voting, which began last Saturday, while Republican turnout is down as much as 15 percent compared to this time in 2012, according to the Clinton campaign and local reports.
Tellingly, proxies are waging war over Nevada’s open Senate seat.
Outside groups have poured more than $70 million into the Nevada Senate race, making it one of the most expensive nationwide, according to OpenSecrets.org. The race has also become an extension of the bitter rivalry between Reid and the billionaire conservative mega-donor Koch brothers, with each tied to PACs on both sides.
As Heck describes it, he has two opponents: “My opponent who is on the ballot, and Harry Reid.”
He’s one of the few Republicans nationwide to hold a congressional seat in such a Democratic and Hispanic district, and he’s won it three times. Obama won the district, southwest of Las Vegas in one of the most populous parts of the state, by a mere eight-tenths of a percentage point in 2012. And even Heck says Republicans don’t do enough to reach out to minority voters until just before an election.
“Those efforts are seen for what they are: somebody who is trying to get a vote,” Heck said. He’s expressed openness to immigration reform, though he voted against allowing so-called “DREAMers” to join the military last year. Heck also has been largely quiet on Trump’s insistence that illegal immigration threatens not only the U.S. election’s integrity but the country’s very existence.
He’s maintained that Trump’s transgressions “don’t come back on Joe Heck.” But the congressman literally can’t escape Trump, whose gilded hotel gleams over the Las Vegas strip with his name in story-high letters.
On Oct. 7, Masto stood in the shadow of Trump’s hotel with several of its employees and members of the Culinary Union Local 226, a political powerhouse. She slammed Trump and Heck as a unit.
Maria Mendoza, a hotel housekeeper, said while she is not a U.S. citizen, her two daughters are. They’re still too young to vote, but it’s important for Clinton to be elected president and Masto the first Latina senator, “so they can see that women can do anything,” she said in Spanish.
The next day, at Heck’s rally, Trump supporter Julie Hereford said she’s far more concerned about border security and terrorism than the GOP presidential nominee’s “off-color” comments. She said she was “very upset” that Heck had called on Trump to leave the race.
“I am a longtime Heck friend and supporter,” Hereford, who settled in Nevada after leaving Taiwan four decades ago, told FP. “He just lost my vote.”
Photo credit: Ethan Miller / Staff